The Truth About King Bhumibol’s Thailand

Thailand’s previous monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was a remarkable figure. Also known as King Rama IX, his life is a fascinating story of an Asian American boy born in Massachusetts and raised in Europe, who then went on to become the longest-reigning monarch in the Southeast Asian nation’s history — spending more than 70 years on the throne. Since there are many excellent biographies of King Bhumibol, most notably 2006’s The King Never Smiles by Paul M. Handley, already widely available (outside the kingdom, at least) — I will not venture into chronicling the monarch’s long life. Instead, I will explore some of the ways I have experienced King Bhumibol while growing up in Thailand, as well as my observations regarding his lasting influence on Thai society.

For context, I am a Thai Millennial in my early 20s. I was born and raised in a small province far from Bangkok. I was raised in a middle class family — my mother was a public school teacher and my father ran a small business. I attended local public schools in the area before moving overseas in Mathayom 4 (the Thai equivalent of the British Year 10 or the American high school sophomore year).

I chose to write this article in English because I wish to convey a different perspective of Thailand to the international community. There seems to be a monotony in international discourse about how Thais view our country and our monarchy, a glancing assumption that all Thais see things the same way. My hope is that this article will shine a different light on the subject and help pave the way for more open discussions away from the beaten path.


What It’s Like to Grow Up in Thailand

To grow up in Thailand is to grow up in King Bhumibol’s shadow. For one thing, his portraits are ubiquitous in Thailand. They are displayed everywhere, from the entrances of government buildings and airports to the gates of private firms, shopping malls,  schools and just about any roadside locale. Virtually every classroom would feature a portrait of him gazing down on the students. His images are plastered on giant billboards, on the sides of buildings, and decorated on pedestrian bridges. At night, bright spotlights lit up these huge outdoor portraits like beacons. In schools, students are made to pledge their loyalty to the king and sing songs praising (or more accurately, worshipping) the royal family. This genre of songs is known as เพลงสรรเสริญพระบารมี or Songs for Royal Worship. Here’s an excerpt from my favourite, which I can still sing today:

ด้วยพระบาท เกือบศตวรรษ
ธ.นำไทยทั้งชาติ พ้นภัย

In English, this roughly translates to:

Such a blessing for Thailand
For Royal Father so willed
That there be plentiful harvests
Pristine waters and fertile soils
Any suffering, He flew to aid
With His Royal Feet, for near a century
Rescued the whole Thai nation
Brought golden prosperity to this land
Through torrents of danger
His Majesty protected Thailand

I still remember walking into school to the tune of these songs echoing out from the PA system. But curiously these songs not only elevated the Thai monarchy to divine status, they also sought to simultaneously devalue and dehumanise the Thai commoners in a subtle way. Here’s a particularly memorable stanza from a very famous song by veteran pop star Thongchai “Bird” McIntyre:

เปราะบาง ไร้ค่า ไร้ความหมาย
อ่อนแอเหมือนโคลน ไหลไปตามทางเรื่อยไป
เมื่อน้ำแห้งไป ก็แตกระแหง
มีพลัง เพียงแค่แรงเดียวที่ยึดเรา
เหนี่ยวรั้ง เราไว้ ให้กล้าแข็ง
รวมผู้คนมากมาย ให้ทรงพลังแข็งแรง
รวมเม็ดดินทุกเม็ด ให้เป็นแผ่นดิน
เราก็รู้ พ่อต้องเหนื่อยสักเพียงไหน
ต้องลำบากใจกาย ไม่เคยสิ้น
เพราะพ่อรู้ พ่อคือ… พลังแห่งแผ่นดิน

In English:

All of us are just a lump of dirt
Frail, worthless, meaningless
Weak like mud, flowing on and on
When drought comes, we break apart
There is only one unifying Force
That holds us together
United so many, that we are strong
Turned us little lumps of dirt into Land
We know how much Father must toil
Tired out His Body and Soul endlessly
Because Father knew… He is the Strength of this Land
So that we may have sufficient to live and eat

In Thailand, Bhumibol is commonly referred to as พ่อ or Father in Thai. This is due to a misguided nostalgia about Thailand’s supposedly idyllic past as a wonderful absolute monarchy where the king treated commoners like his own children and everyone lived in blissful harmony in lavender fields. The fact that the name Bhumibol literally means “strength of the land” is also likely to have inspired the song’s lyrics. It is particularly interesting to note that Bhumibol himself never referred to himself as Father, nor did he ever address his subjects as children. Nevertheless, Thais call him Father anyway. At the time of this writing, if you Google “พ่อ” in Thailand, nearly every result is about Bhumibol.

Watching TV or browsing the web brought even more extravagant praises. There was a heartfelt commercial honouring King Bhumibol every 15 minutes or so on television, and royal posters dominated the front pages of Thai websites, including entertainment sites. His image appeared on all Thai notes and coins. In addition, in every movie screening in every cinema in Thailand, the audience was made to watch a royal music video exalting Bhumibol — and they had to stand up in reverence while doing so. Even in America’s Bible Belt, where I lived, Jesus Christ was nowhere near as well represented as Bhumibol was and still is represented today in Thailand.

But to grow up in Thailand is not only to grow up in the shadow of a seemingly omnipresent king, but to be constantly told from all directions how absolutely gifted, hardworking, virtuous and essentially perfect this enigma was.

Besides excelling in his favourite sports, which included sailing, badminton, shooting, golf, racing, tennis and swimming, Bhumibol was also an accomplished saxophonist player and jazz composer. Likewise, he was also a master of clarinet, trumpet, guitar, and piano. Moreover, he was said to be a highly skilled painter, sculptor, photographer, poet, writer, carpenter, welder, and mechanic. To top it off, due to his involvement in various social and economic development projects, he was celebrated as the Father of Thai Technology, the Father of Cloud Seeding, the Father of Thai Innovation, the Father of Thai Invention, the Father of Thai Heritage Conservation, the Father of Thai Research, and the Father of Thai Craftsmen Standards — together earning him the nickname Father of the Seven Sciences and Arts (พระบิดาแห่ง 7 ศาสตร์ความรู้). From the 1990s onwards, he was also hailed as a profound thinker and philosopher, as well as an economic genius. Bhumibol was credited for more than 4,400 development projects in total, ranging from agricultural improvements to disaster reliefs to novel economic models, of which the most famous ones are the Royal Rainmaking Project (a cloud seeding project), floods control, and the Sufficiency Economy philosophy. For every single project, Bhumibol was (and still is) praised as a world-changing, paradigm-shifting, inimitable genius who brilliantly solved mountains of difficult problems innovatively. A word one hears very often in descriptions of his development projects is พระอัจฉริยภาพ or His Majesty’s genius.

In addition to his countless skills and expertise, Bhumibol was revered for his benevolent, frugal character. He supposedly had a habit of squeezing every last bit of toothpaste from the tube before discarding it. A flattened, dried up tube of toothpaste is displayed in a museum as evidence of his famed economy. His appearance is one of a virtuous Buddhist ruler — detached from the material world and concerned only by the well-being of his subjects. An iconic photograph of Bhumibol is one of him wiping away a bead of sweat trickling down his nose, signifying how tirelessly he worked to develop and modernise his beloved nation. Images of the king travelling in the countryside with a camera around his neck have been widely reproduced for decades. Perhaps the most famous photograph from his tours of the nation, this image captured the moment when Bhumibol bent down and softly spoke to an old rural woman prostrating at his feet. With a gentle smile on his face, this photograph encapsulates Bhumibol’s image as a loving king who cared deeply about his lowliest, most faraway subjects. Although, as writer Peera Songkünnatham observed, this presentation of closeness did not mean that the king himself was actually accessible.

As the Harvard Divinity School noted, many Thais regarded Bhumibol as a bodhisattva — a fully enlightened Buddha who delayed his ascent to nirvana for the good of the people he taught. He was thus seen and treated as partially divine, and his words carried an absolute moral authority that was and remain unquestionable and incontestable in every way. When someone invokes Bhumibol’s opinions in a Thai debate, all counter-arguments are invalid by default, unless said counter-argument also counter-invokes Bhumibol’s words. For this reason, both public and even private projects and events are greenlighted quicker and garner vastly more public support if they are ostensibly done “to honour the King” or “to follow His Majesty’s teachings”. In fact, King Bhumibol’s endorsement is the key ingredient to successful coups d’état in Thailand. If Bhumibol had expressed even a slight disagreement, the coup-makers would certainly have found their heads on the chopping board. But as the 10 successful military coups d’état during Bhumibol’s reign suggest, the king certainly preferred military rule over civilian rule.

Due to Bhumibol’s appearance of supreme moral purity, donating money to him for personal use is also considered a virtuous act akin to merit-making in Buddhism, but better. Intimacy or an appearance of intimacy with the royal family can give someone a highly special clout in Thailand’s power corridors and lobbying circles. It is no coincidence that the richest businessmen in the country often sought relations with the king via large donations, a practice that continued with the current king as well.

Bhumibol’s divine aura is enhanced further through the extensive use of raja-sap, a system of Thai honorifics created as a way for commoners and aristocrats to talk to and about members of the Thai royal family. In this system, commoners cannot address the king directly (“I” to “you”) because they are too low in the hierarchy. Commoners can only address the dust particles under the king’s royal feet (ใต้ฝ่าละอองธุลีพระบาท) using their temples (กระหม่อม) — because only the very highest part of the commoner is worthy of addressing even just the dust particles under the lowliest part of the monarch’s dignified body. In addition to raja-sap, the practice of prostration in the presence of royalty, which was abolished in 1873 by King Chulalongkorn, was also revived during King Bhumibol’s reign — further reinforcing his superhuman image. Bhumibol has also been exalted as “The King of Kings”.

It is also important to note that the teaching of Thai history in schools consists almost exclusively of royal history. More than anything else, Thai history classes are about memorising the achievements and highlights of previous kings as well as their relationships with foreign powers. There is virtually no discussion of how commoners lived, and pivotal events like the end of absolute monarchy, the suspicious murder of King Ananda, the 1973 popular uprising, the Thammasat University Massacre, and the Black May incident are either barely mentioned or ignored entirely.

To grow up in Thailand is to grow up admiring an always righteous, infallible, divine genius king who was the source of all moral legitimacy, and who was also a loving father figure concerned first and foremost about his children’s well-being.

What kind of effects does growing up in such an environment have on a person?

More importantly, what kind of effects does this have on an entire society, after some seven decades?


Descent into Hyper-Royalism

The Powers That Be

The result, of course, is a country that is overzealous about its monarchy. Over the last 70 years, Thailand has been completely transformed into a gigantic cult of personality based on Bhumibol’s cultivated image as a loving, perfect ruler devoted to his people’s well-being.

However, it is important to note that King Bhumibol’s hegemony in Thai society did not arise out of spontaneity. Rather, it is the result of a decades-long public relations campaign run by a powerful, well-oiled propaganda machine funded by taxpayers. The annual Public Budget Allocated for the Preservation of the Monarchy’s Honour is spread throughout the various government ministries and state departments, but it does add up to a sizeable sum — in 2015, this budget totaled up to more than 17 billion bahts (about 500 million US Dollars). After all, those large royal portraits you see in public are not free and had to be paid for by somebody. And they all have but one purpose — to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of the Thai monarchy through unquestioning flattery and praise. Some scholars, such as Maurizio Peleggi, have described this process as “Rama IX’s apotheosis”, although a more common term used by foreign media is deification.

Besides promoting positive narratives of the monarchy and fostering a nationwide hyper-royalist environment through mass media and other means, Thailand’s entrenched oligarchy also aggressively cracks down on opinions that are not sufficiently positive. The primary state apparatus employed for this task is the draconian lèse-majesté law, which technically makes it illegal to defame, insult, or threaten the king, queen, heir-apparent, or regent. There is no legal definition, however, of what actions constitute a defamation, insult, or threat against the monarchy, and there is plenty of room for interpretation. The penalty for lèse-majesté in Thailand was increased to a maximum of fifteen years imprisonment during the premiership of royalist Tanin Kraivixien (1976–77). Also banned was criticism of any member of the royal family, royal development projects (all 4,400 of them), the institution of royalty, the Chakri Dynasty, or any previous Thai king. These harsher provisions have been retained to the present day. In 2013, the Supreme Court of Thailand officially confirmed that the lèse-majesté law also applies to any previous monarchs. Later that year, a man called Mr. Kittithon (surname withheld) was found guilty of “preparing and attempting” to commit an act of lèse-majesté, even though the law states that the mere planning of such act is not an offence. Mr. Kittithon was condemned to 13 years imprisonment. In 2015, Thanakorn Siripaiboon, a factory worker, was charged with violating the lèse-majesté law by spreading “sarcastic” content online about Bhumibol’s dog, Tongdaeng. He was arrested on 8 December 2015. Two months later, Thanakorn remained in custody and appeared before a court to again have his bail request denied. Thanakorn’s lawyer made several representations, such as that prolonging the detention of the suspect violates human rights since the accusations are disproportionate to his actions and that he should not have been charged with lèse-majesté as the law is clear that no dead dog is covered by it. The provincial court dismissed all representations and decided that the case would be heard before a military court, reasoning that the case involved “national security”.

But such is the bizarre nature of Thailand’s lèse-majesté law, seemingly designed not just to punish harshly but also create an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship regarding anything remotely related to the monarchy. Lèse-majesté complaints can be filed by any person against anyone else, and they must always be formally investigated. Details of the charges are rarely made public, and the defendant invariably meets with obstructions from the beginning to the end of the case, especially when asking for a provisional release. There are months-long pretrial detentions, and those who are charged are routinely denied bail, remaining in prison for many months awaiting trial. Detainees are often held in military bases, without safeguards against abuse. They are frequently tortured, and some — such as fortune-teller Suriyan Sucharitpolwong and Police Maj. Prakrom Warunprapa, are brutally murdered in detention. Judges have also said that accusers did not have to prove the factuality of the alleged lèse-majesté material, but only to claim it is defaming in any way. However, if the accused pleads guilty, the sentence can be reduced significantly. Thus, it is easier for the accused to simply surrender and accept the punishment, even if they are innocent. As of January 2017, at least 73 people have been charged with lèse-majesté since the latest coup d’état in May 2014.

In most cases, convictions result in harsh sentences. In August 2015, the Bangkok Military Court sentenced Pongsak Sriboonpeng to 60 years in prison (later reduced to 30 years when he pleaded guilty). The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined in August 2012 that the pretrial detention of an alleged lèse-majesté offender violated international human rights law. In May 2017, the Thai government stated that merely viewing material considered lèse-majesté would be a violation of the law. In December 2016, Jatupat “Pai” Boonpattararaksa, was charged with lèse majesté for sharing a BBC Thai biography of Thailand’s new king. As expected, he was denied bail and as of December 2017 he remains in prison awaiting trial. Even a famous royalist scholar, Sulak Sivaraksa, was charged with lèse-majesté because he publicly questioned the account of King Naresuan’s legendary elephant battle with a Burmese prince in 1593. As of 2010, the Thai government had blocked 57,330 URLs for containing lèse-majesté content.

Where was Bhumibol in all of this? During his birthday speech in 2005, the king encouraged criticism of himself, stating:

Actually, I must also be criticised. I am not afraid of the criticism concerning what I do wrong, because then I know… If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down upon him, because the king is not being treated as a human being. But the king can do wrong…. If someone offers criticisms suggesting that the king is wrong, then I would like to be informed of their opinion. If I am not, that could be problematic… If we hold that the king cannot be criticised or violated, then the king ends up in a difficult situation.

Interestingly, the king avoided addressing the lèse-majesté law directly. And as the number of lèse-majesté cases rose dramatically after the 2006 coup d’état and later the 2014 coup d’état, Bhumibol remained silent — even as the law’s application, legal process and sentencing became increasingly absurd and cruel under Thailand’s military governments, whom Bhumibol himself had endorsed with his official blessing. With his absolute moral hegemony in Thailand, Bhumibol had the power to legitimise or delegitimise anyone, any group, and any practice with just his speech. His continual refusal to denounce or criticise Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté law betrayed a sinister undercurrent.

As it turned out, Thailand’s perfect merciful Buddha-king, our loving heavenly Father — was not as benevolent as he let on. His angelic facade, carefully cultivated over the past 70 years, belies a cold and calculating godfather at the heart of Thailand’s entrenched conservative establishment. Because of Bhumibol’s official status as a constitutional monarch, most outside observers greatly underestimate his incredible extraconstitutional powers and influence, and thus they also underestimate the extent of his political involvement. Bhumibol had in fact conspired to remove countless administrations that he was not pleased with (mostly civilian regimes) and replace them with authoritarian governments run by his subordinates (mostly military) — all done invisibly behind the scenes. Many clear-eyed scholars, however, have tried to explain the mechanics behind Bhumibol’s hegemony and the state apparatus that enabled his subtle yet far-reaching exercises of power — such as Duncan McCargo who proposed the “Network Monarchy” framework, and Eugénie Mérieau who advocated for the “Deep State” theory. Specifically, the phenomenon of hyper-royalism has also been explored by some scholars, such as Thongchai Winichakul. The most renowned and memefied of all scholars on the subject, however, is a Thai silver-haired cat-lover living in Paris who writes exclusively on Facebook: Somsak Jeamteerasakul.

Naturally, many of these scholars and others are exiled or banned from entering Thailand due to their nonconformist views of the monarchy. Besides the infamous cat-lover of Paris, some examples include former Reuters journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, Thai journalist Jom Petchpradab, and Thai academic Pavin Chachavalpongpun. If you want to learn more about Bhumibol’s political involvement, I highly recommend that you study these people’s works.


Manifestations of Hyper-royalism

Hyper-royalism manifests itself in various ways. One is the suspension of disbelief, which leads to a proliferation of urban myths about King Bhumibol. When I was a child in the early years of the internet in Thailand, these myths spread in the form of chain emails, often accompanied by a short persuasive statement about some vague blessings like “If you share this to at least 40 contacts, great blessings will come on you.” Given how gullible most Thais were, these emails spread like wildfire. In more recent years, these stories have found an even more viral circulation platform in modern social media such as Facebook, Instagram and LINE.

Some of the more well-known myths are as follows:

  • King Bhumibol invented the technique of cloud seeding, making him a world-renowned inventor. (It was actually invented by American chemists and meteorologists in the 1940s, as a quick internet search would reveal.)
  • Vladimir Putin, the President and former Prime Minister of Russia, said about Bhumibol: “There is only one great Great King who has never fought with anyone, but is able to make everyone admire him and sing praises for him, and make the entire world surrender to him… that person is King Bhumibol.” (Obviously, Putin never said that. Why would he?)
  • During the economic crisis of 1997, the Toyota factory in Thailand was about to close down. Thousands of workers were going to lose their jobs. Bhumibol single-handedly saved them by placing an order for 1 Toyota Soluna in order to keep the factory running. As the story goes, Toyota was so impressed by His Majesty’s intervention that they decided to revert their decision and kept the factory operational.
  • Bhumibol regularly drove his old Toyota car alone in public, never bringing any bodyguards or companions with him. He regularly made quick stops to buy a bag of cheap roadside coffee (known as “โอเลี้ยง” in Thai). One fine day, he was pulled over by the police because his car was obstructing a minister’s convoy in an intersection. Once the policemen realized who they just pulled over, they fell on their knees and cried. The minister, who wondered why the policemen were taking so long, got out of his car and walked over to take a look. Once he spotted Bhumibol in the old Toyota sedan, he too fell on his knees, shaking uncontrollably from shock. They had never expected their divine king to be so down-to-earth.
  • Bhumibol’s portraits are sacred. Thus, they cannot be burned by fire. There are several accounts of his portraits surviving great fires while everything else was reduced to ashes and soot.

Anyone can make just about anything up. As long as it makes Bhumibol look good, Thais will accept it as true without question. The most fascinating phenomenon, however, isn’t the myths themselves, but the people who believe them. While it is unsurprising that Thais who are not well-educated may believe these stories, it is the very highly-educated segment of the population who eat these stories like candies and are the most eager to share them without question. This demographic, which mostly consists of well-educated white-collar professionals like doctors, engineers, and lawyers, are normally sceptics who always fact-check claims before committing to belief. They are logical thinkers who can reason critically. Yet perplexingly, when it comes to Bhumibol, pretty much anything goes. A famous example is Dr. Wittawat Siriprachai, a doctor-turned-blogger who currently runs a well-known Facebook page called Drama-addict. The now full-time social media influencer routinely debunks false reports, focusing especially on erroneous medical claims, an area he is knowledgeable about. He also disproves fake news and inaccurate rumours in general, especially those involving supernatural beliefs. Moreover, Dr. Siriprachai has strongly expressed socially progressive views on many issues including sexism and rape culture in Thailand. But when it comes to the Thai monarchy, facts are thrown out the window and he zealously joins in with others parading untrue palace propaganda.

Less surprisingly, another demographic that keeps the circulation of royal myths going is the public servants, known in Thailand as ka-raja-garn (ข้าราชการ). The name literally means “king’s affairs servant”. Public service is called raja-garn (ราชการ) or “king’s affairs”. Anyone who has experienced Thai public service would know that it is a bafflingly incompetent bureaucracy that offers terrible customer service. However, given that they pride themselves on serving the king (as their title suggests), and not the common folks, their often-condescending attitude towards normal citizens is not exactly shocking. There is actually a common saying among Thai public servants: “ข้าราชการ คือ คนของพระราชา” or “ka-raja-garn are the king’s people”, which cements their loyalty as belonging to the king — completely ignoring the commoners who pay all of their salaries. If you have studied in a Thai school, you would likely have noticed that nearly every teacher had some sort of royal stories to tell, although they were not always about Bhumibol. I once heard a science teacher, whom I admired very much, claim that King Chulalongkorn built the very first railway in Asia and thus made Thailand the dominant Asian power of his time. These stories all have one thing in common: they were either false, or their factuality was virtually unverifiable.

Aside from the fervid reproduction of urban myths, hyper-royalism also manifests itself in the form of mass hysteria regarding the monarchy. In many cases, it is completely harmless, such as when many Thais expressed extreme sorrow and heartbreak upon hearing the news of King Bhumibol’s death in October 2016. Other times, it can get quite messy, such as when a man accused of posting lèse-majesté content on Facebook was dragged out in public by an angry mob and forced to prostrate himself in front of Bhumibol’s portrait and beg for forgiveness. A man stomped on his head, and another man slapped his face and punched his stomach. Several other men also punched and kicked his face. Although the man was not critically injured, he was visibly bruised and battered. In another incident, a woman was slapped by a stranger in public because she was allegedly saying “inappropriate things” about the monarchy. In several incidents after Bhumibol’s death, people have been publicly scolded and shamed for not wearing black in public. There were so many incidents that the junta leader, Prayut Chan-o-cha, had to ask the Thai public to calm down in a televised address. Recently, a television host and his girlfriend were lambasted for wearing red sweatshirts during their overseas holiday in Budapest, Hungary. Under unrelenting pressure, they publicly apologized for their “lack of foresight”. Even after Bhumibol’s funeral was over and the mourning period had ended, Thais remained confused and nervous about private dress codes.

But among all the mass hysteria, hyper-royalism also appears in a more calculated, sophisticated form. Because Bhumibol had virtually become, as one prominent scholar noted, a substituted Buddha/Buddhism/religion — he is synonymous with morality itself. Hence, a person can greatly enhance their moral standing by invoking Bhumibol and expressing great love and devotion for him. For this reason, many Thai celebrities try to outdo each other in showing their admiration of the king. Giving a heartfelt speech is considered tame, as nearly everyone does it. A more masterful showing is to stand in the rain and get wet with your family when you go to pay your last respect to the king (even though one of you had an umbrella), take some dramatic photographs and upload them to Instagram with the hashtag #สู้ฝนเพราะรักพ่อ or #BravedTheRainCozWeLoveFather. If you have Thai friends on Facebook or Twitter, you may have seen an outpour of love for the king on their feeds, accompanied by this hashtag: #ขอเป็นข้ารองพระบาททุกชาติไป which means #WishToBeHisFootCushionForeverAndEver. This is yet another way to invoke and exploit the immense moral aura of Bhumibol by posing as his faithful subjects. Even foreigners who are celebrities in Thailand, like Jack “Dekfarang” Brown, have learned to play along with this hyper-royalist charade.

Another way that hyper-royalism manifests itself is in the popularity of mass consumer products based on Bhumibol  — from wearables like wristbands and T-shirts to books, posters, and calendars. If you have been in Thailand for a considerable amount of time, you probably have seen this display of mass royalism. In Thailand, no brand sells like Bhumibol’s.

Ultimately, Thailand has found itself deep in the abyss of hyper-royalism. Both in terms of scale and intensity, this level of worshipful devotion to a leader and his family is unheard of in today’s world — perhaps with the sole exception of North Korea.

As I watch Thailand sink deeper into absurdity, my heart throbs.

What will become of this country?


Bhumibol’s Legacy and the Future of Thailand

The Legacy of a Man

Before we return to Thailand and King Bhumibol, I would like to make a detour to discuss another elder Asian leader of similar age to Bhumibol and who was also a father figure to his nation — Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. The story of modern Singapore and its founding father is truly remarkable. Li Shengwu, Lee Kuan Yew’s youngest grandson, eloquently summarised it in his eulogy:

History is full of plans for the total transformation of society. Plato’s Republic. Abbe Sieyes’ What is the Third Estate?  The Communist Manifesto. Few plans succeed, and many cause more bloodshed than happiness. As such plans go, his was compassionate – even humane. His objective was that his fellow citizens, you and I, would know peace and plenty. He believed that education, open markets, and clean government would make the people of Singapore a great people.

That his plan succeeded is beyond dispute. It succeeded so rapidly, so thoroughly, that to my generation of Singaporeans, the poverty and instability of Singapore’s beginning feels almost unreal – like a fever dream chased away by the morning light.

He was our man of tomorrow.  From the day he took office in 1959, he fought to bring Singapore into the future. In real terms in 1959, the average Singaporean was as poor as the average American in the year 1860. Today Singapore is one of the most developed countries in the world.  The Singapore economy has advanced more in fifty years than the American economy has advanced in one hundred and fifty years. This is a pace of progress that is less like economic development, and more like time travel.

Once, at the suggestion that a monument might be made for him, my grandfather replied, “Remember Ozymandias”.  He was, of course, referring to Shelley’s sonnet about Ramses the Second, the greatest Pharaoh of the Egyptian empire. In the poem, a lone traveller encounters a broken statue in the desert. On the statue, the inscription, “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”  Nothing beside remains.

I think his meaning was that, if Singapore does not persist, then a monument will be no help.  And if Singapore does persists, then a monument will be unnecessary.

There is no question that Singapore persists today. The tiny nation, situated on an island with no hinterland or natural resources (not even enough freshwater to survive), and with an area barely larger than Phuket, has a GDP per capita of US$53,000 — nine times greater than Thailand’s US$5,900. In addition to being the richest country in Asia Pacific, Singapore has been ranked by the World Economic Forum as the 2nd most economically competitive country in the world. The city-state is also one of the safest cities and the safest countries in the world. It is a place where women can walk the streets alone any hour of the night without worry, a place without drug gangs, homeless camps or slums. With the 2nd lowest crime rate in the world, Singapore’s firearm-related homicide rate is 0.02 person per 100,000 population per year, and not a single person has been murdered with a gun in the last 10 years. Moreover, the country’s trade logistics and overall infrastructure are top-notch, with an extensive and affordable public transport system, fast internet, and the best airport in the world. Its public education tops international rankings, and its world-class universities put Thailand’s to total shame. Furthermore, it is also among the cleanest countries in the world, where street-side littering is extremely rare. Its parks are impeccably manicured, and large trees and floras line its roads — essentially making it a modern metropolis built in a tropical garden. Singapore’s healthcare system is world-class, and its citizens have nearly the highest life expectancy in the world at 83.1 years old. Singapore’s home ownership rate is almost the highest in the world at over 90%, and to top it all off, it is also the least corrupt country in all of Asia. In many ways, Singapore can be described as an equatorial neo-utopia.

While indeed Lee Kuan Yew has been widely (and arguably rightly) criticised for his authoritarian approach to governance, evident in Singapore’s nanny-state harsh laws, stern sentencing policies, poor press freedom, and the ruling party’s suppression of political opposition — it is still undeniable that Singapore has done remarkably well in the span of half a century. Although it is beyond the scope of this article to explore exhaustively the recipe of Singapore’s success, it is worth pointing out that one ingredient of that success is a strong work ethic championed by Lee and his successors, based on the principle of meritocracy. Singapore puts a Darwinian emphasis on discipline, hard work, and measurable performance — so that its citizens will always strive to be ever more prosperous, ever more successful. This results in a competitive, stressful culture that can be felt by anyone who has partaken, as I have, in Singapore’s notoriously demanding education system and the endless rat race of a career in its cutthroat private sector. This type of hamster-like work ethic has also been blamed for Singapore’s growing culture of ostentatious consumption and crass materialism, which has been pointed out and criticised by none other than Lee’s own daughter, the neurologist Dr. Lee Wei Ling.

In a competitive country that calibrates its sense of accomplishment almost entirely with economic indicators and measurable standards, there is an urge to find deeper meaning. Singapore is a society that superficially appears to have everything — and then is still asking itself: but is ‘everything’ enough?

But despite the values-hegemony of materialism in Singapore, which Lee had helped imbed into the nation’s cultural fabrics, the elder statesman himself lived simply. He stayed in the same house at 38 Oxley Road throughout his life. His grandson stated:

In a city of continual renewal, my grandparents’ house never changed. Always the same white walls, the same wooden furniture, the same high windows letting in sunlight. The food stayed the same too; Singapore cooking of a kind that would not be out of place at a good stall in a hawker center.

And his daughter stated:

My parents and I live in the same house that my paternal grandparents and their children moved into after World War II in 1945. It is a big house by today’s standards, but it is simple – in fact, almost to the point of being shabby.
Those who see it for the first time are astonished that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s home is so humble. But it is a comfortable house, a home we have got used to. Though it does look shabby compared to the new mansions on our street, we are not bothered by the comparison.

Lee Kuan Yew died at the age of 91 on 23 March 2015, after being hospitalised with pneumonia. A week-long period of national mourning was declared by the government. Some of the notable mourners who attended his funeral are listed here.

Given the long list of international VIPs, I had expected Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral procession to be extremely fanciful, with massive parades and impressive shows of the country’s splendour. As it turned out, the whole procession was surprisingly simple. Dull, even. Lee’s body was placed inside a wooden casket. With a Singaporean flag draped over it, the casket was put inside a glass box on an undecorated gun carriage and pulled by a nondescript military jeep in a small, underwhelming convoy. The state funeral service, chock full of world leaders, took place in an unadorned university hall with minimal flourish. Even in death, this giant of a leader kept his conduct straightforward and unvarnished. Because he understood, perhaps more than any other long-standing leader, the importance of leaving the right legacies when one’s time has passed. For Lee Kuan Yew, a grandmaster of statecraft, it meant building resilient institutions that would long outlive him. His grandson astutely observed:

It is often said that my grandfather built great institutions for Singapore. But what is an institution? It is a way of doing things that outlives the one who builds it. A strong institution is robust, it is persistent. It does not depend precariously on individual personalities. It places the rule of law above the rule of man. And that is the sacrifice of being a builder of institutions. To build institutions is to cede power – is to create a system that will not forever rely on you. That this occasion passes without disorder or uncertainty shows that he succeeded in this task. We are bereft at his passing, but we are not afraid. The pillars that he built stand strong, the foundations that he dug run deep.

Last year, as I walked through Singapore’s streets after seeing Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, my mind drifted to one particular scene in the movie. After Superman’s giant statue was destroyed in his fight with Doomsday, it was never rebuilt. What replaced it was a small area for vigil, and a phrase:

If you seek his monument, look around you.

It was a powerful scene that captured the essence of Lee’s legacy for Singapore. As I looked out at the gleaming, opulent skyline of Marina Bay, I saw no monument of Lee — no statues, no golden-framed portraits, no giant billboards extolling this father figure. Because they were truly unnecessary. Singapore has persisted. Its very success is the monument.

In this year’s commencement address, a prominent US business leader told MIT students, “Measure your impact on humanity not in likes but in the lives you touch, not in popularity but in the people you serve.The people of Singapore today lead safe, comfortable, prosperous lives. A brilliant people who rose above their circumstances to become a shining beacon in a troubled region. No monument would compare to this living, thriving nation.

This is Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.

This is the legacy of a man.


The Legacy of a God

After 70 years on the throne, more than 4,400 development projects, and untold amount of tax money spent — how much had King Bhumibol achieved for Thailand? Very little, it turns out. The problem with Bhumibol’s myriad development projects is not that they were fake, because they were real. I personally enjoy many of the agricultural products borne out of these projects (the Doikham tomato juice is absolutely delicious). The problem is that they have been promoted so far out of proportion, they have lost their grip on reality. So much fanfare have been made of these projects, they seemed to have been conceived to enhance Bhumibol’s image rather than actually help the people they were meant to serve. A perfect example is Bhumibol’s famous countrywide floods control projects, which are among the most celebrated items in his portfolio. All of them have been hailed as the stuff of pure genius. Hearing the endless praises, you would think Bhumibol could rival the Dutch experts at water management. Yet there have been floods in Thailand every year. Every. Single. Year.

In fact, in the weeks leading up to Bhumibol’s funeral, parts of Bangkok as well as 23 provinces throughout the country were flooded. After his funeral had ended, 20 provinces remained flooded. It was a truly surreal experience for me to read these news on my phone while the Thai television droned on about how Bhumibol saved Thailand from floods and how we were all infinitely indebted to him. The suspension of disbelief involved is unreal. The public is, of course, never allowed to know how much of their money were spent on these ineffective projects. No financial breakdowns to reveal how much were spent on actual project execution and how much were wasted on advertising Bhumibol’s overrated intellect. There are no KPI numbers, no ROIs (for commercial projects), and no cost-effectiveness analyses. There are only non-stop praises — empty words without the transparency and the numbers to back them up. And since criticism of these projects is banned by the highly flexible lèse-majesté law, nobody can raise questions about them.

Among all of Bhumibol’s development projects, the most renowned is the Sufficiency Economy philosophy, which is often touted as the hallmark of Bhumibol’s momentous talent and infinite wisdom. In a televised address in 1997, Bhumibol stated:

Recently, so many projects have been implemented, so many factories have been built, that it was thought Thailand would become a little tiger, and then a big tiger. People were crazy about becoming a tiger…Being a tiger is not important. The important thing for us is to have a sufficient economy. A sufficient economy means to have enough to support ourselves.

The Sufficiency Economy philosophy was created as a criticism of, and an alternative to, Thailand’s rapidly industrialising, exports-based economy of the 1990s which was directly fueled by globalisation. While part of the philosophy served as a reasonable critique of modern capitalism’s endless quest for ever more profits, since it stressed the importance of exercising moderation in one’s pursuit of material wealth, the philosophy’s sensibility stopped there. In practice, the Sufficiency Economy philosophy promotes localism (to counter globalisation) and self-sufficiency (to counter reliance on trade). The aim is for people to adopt a non-competitive, self-sufficient agrarian lifestyle that allows them to avoid the vagaries of the capitalist market economy. Ideally, each household would produce their own foods (by growing their own crops and breeding their own livestocks using pre-industrial methods), sew their own clothing (probably by growing their own cotton too), make their own tools, build their own houses, and craft their own furnitures. Each small village would then be self-contained and thus people can minimise their participation in the market economy and avoid the materialistic rat race of global capitalism. Many model villages have been built to demonstrate and promote this lifestyle. Already, this philosophy has been adopted by many people, such as Jon Jandai, who were disenfranchised by urban Thailand’s ruthless neoliberalism. This is not exactly a new trend, since many Western hippies and Neo-Luddites have been espousing similar life philosophies for decades. On the surface, this kind of philosophy may seem entirely positive — a liberation of the oppressed proletariat from the capitalist cycle of production and consumption, a wise retreat from the chaotic big city to the peaceful farm. To many, it seems like a beautifully simple alternative to the mind-numbing complexity of a world that is increasingly industrialised, digitised, and abstractified. In truth, however, it is extremely misguided and profoundly dangerous.

To understand why, we need only look at history. How did humans, from simple hunter-gatherers, become a species that dominates the planet and will soon colonise other worlds? The answer is quite simple: increased efficiency in food production and division of labour. Increased efficiency in food production meant that there was a relative abundance of food surplus, which freed people from the time-consuming and laborious tasks that the production of food entailed. This enabled the division of labour, meaning that people could devote themselves to specialised trades not directly related to food production, such as science and research, and then use the values created from their trades to obtain food through commerce. In macroeconomics, a similar idea gave birth to the trade theory of comparative advantage. The benefits of the division of labour first materialised in the invention of the wheel, the development of cursive script, mathematics, astronomy and various agricultural innovations following the Neolithic Revolution. The rule of the game is simple: as agriculture becomes more and more productive, more and more people are free to do other things, and fewer people remain involved in agriculture. After the Industrial Revolution, the sons and daughters of farmers became engineers, lawyers, and doctors. After the Digital Revolution, even more people left the farms in droves to become computer scientists, software engineers, quantum physicists, geneticists, quantitative analysts, et cetera. In 1900, 41% of the United States’ labour force worked on a farm; now the proportion is below 2%. This continual shift in the labour force is what enabled the creation of new industries and technologies that continues to improve standards of living globally — from cutting-edge healthcare to predictive logistics to advanced nanoscale manufacturing and e-commerce. The global increase in urbanisation is not an accident — it is a natural byproduct of the aforementioned labour shift, since highly specialised industries tend to be concentrated in geographically small precincts rather than sprawl outwards over large areas like agriculture. Over time, even the agricultural industry itself has become highly specialised, technologically complex operations in advanced economies like the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Japan — all in order to produce more with less. There is no sign that these trends will stop anytime soon. Food production will keep getting more efficient and output higher yields, and labour will keep becoming more specialised in other areas as a result. The specialised labour in turn creates useful innovations that feed back into food production, further increasing yields — ultimately forming a virtuous cycle of progress that is defining the future of agriculture. With the rapid technological advancements in areas like robotics and artificial intelligence, all signs are pointing to a future where human farmers are obsolete.

The Sufficiency Economy philosophy is profoundly dangerous precisely because it goes against these trends that form the backbone of all human civilisations’ growth. By encouraging people to adopt an agrarian, self-contained, anti-trade lifestyle, there is a potential to create a reverse flow that turns back the virtuous cycle. Thailand is already an industrialised economy with a growing services sector. If this philosophy becomes popular and large sections of the Thai population adopt an agrarian lifestyle, the country’s economy will collapse from a severe skilled labour shortage in the manufacturing and services sectors. One only needs to look at the Thai economy’s labour distribution to understand just how much human resource is already wasted in agriculture. The manufacturing sector which relies heavily on foreign companies employs 21% of the labour force and contributes 43% of the country’s GDP. The services sector employs 39% of the labour force and contributes 45% of the GDP. Meanwhile, the agricultural sector employs a whopping 40% of the labour force, yet contributes only 12% of the economy. If even more of the labour force moves into the agricultural sector, there will not be enough qualified doctors and nurses to operate modern hospitals, not enough skilled engineers to oversee complex construction and manufacturing projects, not enough information technology professionals to keep the communications infrastructure and essential services running, and so on and so forth. Eventually, the country’s standards of living will revert back to its pre-industrial era. Thailand’s clock will turn back 50 years. Currently, the Thai population is already the third most rapidly ageing population in the world so labour shortage will only worsen over time. If Sufficiency Economy is ever widely implemented, it will be the end of Thailand, guaranteed. Fortunately, this shortsighted philosophy has not gained wide adoption, although there is a lot of fanfare about it (naturally, since it’s Bhumibol’s brainchild). But Sufficiency Economy is not only impractical and extremely dangerous (and frankly stupid), it is also nauseatingly hypocritical. As Professor Kevin Hewison, Director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina, aptly explained:

Sufficiency Economy is essentially about keeping the poor in their place. The people and organisations that promote SE are a wonderfully contradictory lot. The king, promoting moderation, sits at the head of a family and institutional wealth that is huge, based on land ownership and large capitalist corporations. The Crown Property Bureau’s known institutional wealth is estimated more than US$40 billion. This is massive on the scale of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. Prime Minister Surayud spends considerable time talking up SE and his government has made huge budget allocations to SE activities. Meanwhile, Surayud has declared collections of luxury cars and watches and expensive homes, despite having been on a relatively low military salary his entire career. The contradictions are massive. For the wealthy, SE means that they can enjoy their wealth so long as they do so within their means. For the poor, the advice is to make do. In class terms, SE becomes an ideology to justify inequalities.

Very truly I tell you, Thailand is a land of hypocrisy. By far the richest person in Thailand and the richest monarch in the world, Bhumibol had the gall to lecture poor Thais, telling them to exercise moderation when it came to wealth. If he had his priorities right, he would have been lecturing his own son, the current king, who once ordered 350 parcels of takeaway Thai food from the United Kingdom, and had them flown almost 10,000 kilometres to him in his Bangkok palace — just because he could. And although Bhumibol himself may be famous for his thrifty application of toothpaste, he clearly never exercised even a modicum of moderation when it came to wasting untold amount of people’s tax money on vanity projects and self-aggrandisement. Surely such an austere leader would have opposed to having giant golden-framed spotlighted portraits of himself displayed on every street corner while his subjects struggled to make ends meet? He never did.

To the surprise of no one, King Bhumibol was sent off to the afterlife in a lavish funeral following a year-long mourning period, costing taxpayers over 3 billion bahts or 90 million US Dollars — more than 15,000 times the average Thai’s yearly income. As Liam Cochrane described:

The centrepiece for the ceremonies is the royal crematorium. It was built from scratch on Sanam Luang — the field in front of the grand palace kept for this very purpose. The elaborate golden crematorium is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru — the mythical mountain where Hindus believe the gods live. The royal cremation draws on both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. A nine-tiered white umbrella will sit on top of the crematorium’s highest spire representing the King and his mastery of all eight points of the compass.

Truly a funeral fit for a god. In total, 85 replicas of the 50-metre-tall royal crematorium were built throughout the country as shrines for Thais to place flowers. Bhumibol’s own spectacular funeral perfectly characterised his reign. To the very end, it was all about building excessive monuments and doing endless PR exercises to compensate for his lack of real and measurable successes for his country.

But ultimately, what kind of country did King Bhumibol the magical, saintly genius leave behind?

Politically, Thailand is a highly corrupt despotic military dictatorship that subjects some dissidents to “attitude adjustment” in the army’s “re-education” camps, and slaps others with absurd lèse-majesté charges. It ranks 101st on the Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Gabon and Niger, and worse than Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Its internet is rated as less free than Russia’s.

Since the 1970s, but especially after 2005, Thai politics has essentially become a struggle for supremacy between two camps: an entrenched minority who want to keep their privileged status quo (supported by Bhumibol, obviously), and an oppressed majority who want greater say in how the country is governed, as concisely summarised by Thitinan Pongsudhirak:

Thailand’s two coups in 2006 and 2014 and the politically decisive judicial manoeuvre in 2008 were merely a rearguard action from the old political order to forestall changes and upend what they saw as a usurping upstart, personified by Thaksin. The military government now in power comes straight from the Cold War decades, not the 21st century. The yellows are beneficiaries of the same era, not ignorant of the 21st century but demonstrably insistent on entering it under their own terms. The reds are a 21st-century movement, the beneficiaries of the development and growth of Cold War years but now more exposed to and integrated with the outside world, enabling a broad awakening and realisation that they count and that they have stakes in the Thai system that won’t be denied.

In the last 12 years, these two groups’ clashes have created a deep fissure in Thai society, one that will certainly take years, if not decades to mend.

The current military government, endorsed by Bhumibol himself when it seized power from an elected government in May 2014, is as incompetent as they come. Led by the obtuse General Prayut Chan-o-cha who appointed himself Prime Minister, the administration has been nothing but one big joke after another. Recently, the junta leader advised Thais whose communities had been flooded for more than 4 months to cope by taking up fishery as a living.

Besides the junta, Thailand is also left with a new king, Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, Bhumibol’s only son. He is widely known as a wacky egoistic womaniser with extremely cruel and murderous track records. While many Thais adored Bhumibol with all their hearts due to his Buddha-like image, few could bring themselves to love Vajiralongkorn. It remains to be seen how much the formidable palace propaganda machine can improve the long-gossiped king’s popularity.

Socially, Thailand is now a fully crazed cult of personality that carry out witch hunts when it finds someone who doesn’t love the monarchy head over heels. It is also an extremely gullible society that unquestioningly believes in bogus claims, especially (but not limited to) positive assertions about the monarchy.

Thailand also has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Southeast Asia, more than 10 times Singapore’s. This is but a symptom of Thai culture’s unhealthy attitude to sex and sexuality — in which discussing or showing anything sexual is considered immoral and an affront to traditional values. This puritanical attitude is fueled by the dysfunctional Thai education as well as the media, whose censorship policies are just plainly ridiculous. But despite their sanctimonious front, Thai media eagerly objectify women and glorify sexual assaults. Like India’s and Egypt’s, Thai culture is a rape culture, where misogyny and victim-blaming are perfectly acceptable and commonplace. Indeed, gender equality in Thailand is a privileged lie.

It is self-contradictory, of course, that Thailand’s sex industry is among the most famous in the world. With an estimated 200,000 to 700,000 sex workers in the country, Thailand is a popular destination for sex tourism. But due to the prudish country’s hypocritical attitude, this topic is rarely discussed in public. The Thai government and the socially conservative population remain in denial about the proliferation of prostitution and its contribution to the economy and tourism. Most of the time, they simply pretend that this industry does not exist in Thailand — leaving a gigantic policy and enforcement blind spot for crimes like child prostitution.

Although it is not commonly known to outsiders, modern Thai culture is also callously racist, discriminating against people with dark skin and admiring people with white skin. This is mainly due to a perception of class — dark skin is associated with low-skilled labourers who work outdoors, while white skin is associated with educated white-collar workers. In the 1980s, the increasing economic and social dominance of the Sino-Thai population, who were ethnic Chinese and thus had fair skin, led to a dramatic shift in Thai society’s beauty standards. This change was most apparent in the entertainment industry, where ethnic Thai actors and models were replaced by their ethnic Chinese counterparts. Today, Thai beauty ideals are constructed based on the westernised, pale-skinned ethnic Chinese Bangkok elite who spends most of their time in air-conditioned shopping malls. Coincidentally, the explosive rise in popularity of Korean media and entertainment in Thailand over the last decade further reinforced this type of beauty standards.

Crime has infiltrated all components of Thai society, including Buddhist institutions which offer an excellent veil of legitimacy to criminal organizations. There have been a number of monks in a string of cases in recent years caught with methamphetamines, selling drugs, prostitutes, pornography, and guns, including senior monks. The current military rule has coincided with a surge in thefts, burglaries and robberies. The national police recorded more than 75,557 thefts and other property crimes in the fiscal year that ended in September 2015, 10.5 percent higher than the previous fiscal year. Violent crime was up 8.6 percent during the same period. Human trafficking and slavery are also rampant in Thailand.

Economically, Thailand is the third most unequal country in the world, behind only India and Russia. Its primary industry, agriculture, which employs 40% of the workforce, is woefully uncompetitive despite the numerous genius development projects attributed to Bhumibol. Rice, its most important crop, has extremely poor yields compared to rivals like Vietnam and Indonesia. Thai rice exports also incur the highest production costs and have the lowest profit margins in Southeast Asia. Over the last forty years, Thailand’s economy rode on the back of globalisation and became an important manufacturing base for foreign companies like Sony, Toyota and Western Digital. Using these multinational corporations to build and supercharge its manufacturing sector, the Thai economy grew enough to become a middle-income country. Adjusted for inflation, Thailand’s GDP per capita grew 933% from $571 in 1960 to $5,901 in 2016. Virtually none of this growth had anything to do with Bhumibol — if anything, he slowed it down through his promotion of Sufficiency Economy. By contrast, South Korea’s GDP per capita grew 2,597% from $944 in 1960 to $25,459 in 2016. China’s GDP per capita grew 5,123% from $132 in 1962 to $6,894 in 2016. For a variety of reasons, Thailand is very much stuck in the middle-income trap. Foreign investment, the country’s traditional growth driver, is now leaving for greener pastures. On average, Thais also work the longest hours in Asia, at 51 hours per week.

With increasing automation driven by recent advancements in technology, large numbers of today’s jobs will be destroyed, and workers will have to retrain quickly to get themselves back to work.

To keep its labour employable and to escape the middle-income trap, Thailand desperately and urgently needs a First World education.

However, Thailand’s present education system is appallingly Third World. In the OECD’s 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment, Thailand is ranked near the bottom, behind Kazakhstan and Trinidad and Tobago. In another ranking by the World Economic Forum, Thai education is ranked behind its poorer neighbours like Laos and Vietnam. The World Bank’s research found that one-third of 15-year-old Thai students are “functionally illiterate”. Out of more than 80 universities in Thailand, only 2 universities rank in the top 500 in the QS World University Rankings. The best university in the country by far, Chulalongkorn University, ranks only 245th. In the Times Higher Education’s 2018 World University Rankings, however, not a single university in Thailand made it to the top 500. In perhaps the best article ever written about Thai higher education and its culture, a British academic expressed dismay at Thai academia:

Through my work, I was shocked to encounter foreign academics, familiar with the Thai university system, that all but refused to refer to Thai academics as qualified, preferring instead the term ‘credentialed’. In short, I was shocked to find that the possession of bachelor’s, master’s or even Ph.D. certificates from Thai institutions are not seen as guarantees of basic competence at an international level, comparable with their nominal equivalents elsewhere in the world (including other developing countries). This is true to a lesser degree in the physical vis-à-vis the social sciences but is still a widespread problem.

Education remains, in most cases, simply a tool for social advancement. The holder of a master’s degree is superior to a bachelor’s degree holder (and expects due deference). A Ph.D. graduate is concomitantly superior to both. At no point does anyone ask if he or she might as well have wiped his or her arse on his or her degree certificate instead of framing it and hanging it on the wall of mummy and daddy’s shop, car dealership or government office – below the Buddha and the King, obviously.

If that isn’t bad enough, many Thai schools and colleges actually function more like gangster dens than educational institutions. News of deadly brawls and gang fights between students are extremely common in Thailand. A practice of abusive hazing, known as SOTUS, is also widespread. Students have been verbally abused, physically beaten and sexually harassed by their upperclassmen. Some have been bullied and coerced into stripping naked, performing manual genital stimulation, and putting their faces in one another’s nude buttocks. Many freshmen have died from this university-sanctioned sadism. Phokhai Saengrojrat, a student at Pathumthani Technical College, died from respiratory failure after being forced to consume an alcoholic drink and having his face pushed into the sand at Sai Noi Beach in Prachuap Khiri Khan Province. In July 2008, a student at Uthenthawai University was beaten to death by a group of senior students during hazing. As a British observer noted:

A fitting simulacrum of SOTUS ethos might be hundreds of half-smiling students being told to proudly sing a Thai Land of Hope and Glory, but sing it while they are crawling on their knees.

SOTUS tradition, it seems, goes too far at times. Nonetheless, and probably because SOTUS mirrors in many ways Thailand’s power structure, or even in some cases family values, SOTUS has been allowed its rather aggressive, unenlightening, militaristic foibles. The rituals, games (that depends on where, and who you are), and petty marches are supposed to drill into the freshman a sense of order, a sense of pride, a sense of status (hidden curriculums), a sense of fear, while each new tame member to the institute makes new friends with other members of his or her faculty.

If you watch students being hazed at Chiang Mai University in the evening you’d know what I mean. It looks more like a Hitler youth training session than fecund minds being introduced to the vast complexities of academic life, or at best a very ill-willed and deviant boy-scouts or girl guides routine.

In other parts of the world, education is often characterised as a great equaliser that reduces society’s gaps. In Thailand, however, it is a system that conditions young people into learning and accepting their “rightful place” in society’s pecking order — a system that perpetuates the authoritarianism and anti-intellectualism so prevalent in every facet of Thai society.

No physical place represents the culmination of the development of modern Thailand as accurately as Bangkok, the capital city and the heart of the economy. As brilliantly portrayed by this health insurance commercial, Bangkok has one of the worst public transportation systems in the world. The city floods pretty much every time it rains, and it has one of the worst traffic jams in the world. Overall, Thailand has the most congested and the second-deadliest roads in the world. Bangkok is also not particularly well-known for sanitation, and it has hazardous levels of air pollution. Just a few kilometres from the luxury and opulence of Bangkok’s main shopping district and the royal palace, large communities live in slums and shanty towns — making it truly a land of the haves and the have-nots. Every few years, army tanks would roll into this ugly city to seize power from whichever popularly-elected government the palace and the ruling class aren’t happy with.

This is the true face of King Bhumibol’s Thailand.

This is the legacy of a false god.


The Future of Thailand

As I learned more about the hidden truths of Thailand over the past few years, I have come to see my beloved country in a completely new light. Finally realising the full scale of the brainwashing that permeates every fabric of the Thai society brought with it a shocking identity crisis. It felt like I was rudely unplugged from the Matrix and forced to confront a new reality.

Everything we’ve been told was a lie. A grand illusion to keep us subservient.

Since then, I have embarked on a personal quest to find the true face of Bhumibol’s Thailand — to see through the thick fog of mass propaganda that has plagued this country for so long. This article is a product of that quest.

I have also been thinking hard about what the future holds for Thailand. Based on all of the factors I have observed, the only logical prediction of Thailand’s future is that the country as a whole will decline — not just politically and economically but also socially. Over time, the government and public services will become less responsive to the people’s needs, since they have no incentive to work for the enfeebled electorate. The country’s international standing will diminish and its voice will fade into irrelevance on the world stage. As the population ages rapidly, domestic consumption will fall and the country’s workforce will be depleted. In many ways, standards of living will worsen. Wages will be stagnant and high-paying jobs will be scarcer as the country’s competitiveness declines due to its inability to adapt to the changing world that calls for an innovation-driven knowledge economy. Quality of education will plummet even further as schools are transformed into little more than brainwashing facilities. Crime rates will rise as inequality soars and social mobility diminishes. Corruption and fraud will multiply as transparency is reduced. Civil society and civil discourse will erode and decay as the hysteria and anti-intellectualism borne of hyper-royalism seep into all areas of public life and undermine basic reason and logic.

Thailand is dying. It is a slowly sinking ship. And with a leadership that is lacking in every way, this tragic fate cannot be avoided.

I write more in sorrow than in derision about Thailand’s inevitable decline. I do not want to run Thailand down. But the facts are the facts — our beliefs should accord with the evidence, and not the other way around. Beyond a shadow of doubt, Thailand is headed for long-term trouble and malaise.

It is regrettable that things have turned out this way. I grew up during the premiership of Thaksin Shinawatra, and while he was a flawed and controversial leader who implemented many terrible policies, he also oversaw many unprecedented successes. By diverting to the poorer parts of the country resources that had previously been hogged by Bangkok and its middle and upper-class residents, Thaksin’s policy solutions allowed Thais from the regional provinces to share in the country’s economic growth. Most memorably, there was a real sense, at least among those of us who lived far from Bangkok, that ordinary Thais could partake in the running of the country. For the first time, Thais in rural areas had a voice that could influence public policy — but that is gone now. As none other than Lee Kuan Yew succinctly explained in 2013:

When he took over the premiership in 2001, Thaksin was already a successful businessman and a billionaire. But if rich Thais were counting on him to show class solidarity, they would soon be sorely disappointed. He implemented policies that favoured the rural poor to an unprecedented extent. He extended loans to farmers, overseas scholarships to students from rural families and government —subsidised housing to the urban poor, many of whom had migrated to the cities in search of jobs and could only afford to live in slums. His healthcare plan targeted at those who could not pay for their own medical insurance provided coverage at just 30 baht (about US$1) per hospital visit.

To Thaksin’s opponents, he was turning the country upside down. They were not about to let him get away with it. They called him a populist and claimed his policies would bankrupt the state. (Remarkably, this did not stop them from continuing many of these policies and coming up with other similar ones when they held power from December 2008 to August 2011.) They accused him of corruption and favouring his family businesses, charges he denied. They were also unhappy with his firm — some say dictatorial — handling of the media and his controversial war on drugs in the south of the country, during which due process and human rights may sometimes have been overlooked. Nevertheless, the peasants, overwhelming in numbers, ignored the criticisms and re-elected him in 2005. The Bangkok elite ultimately could not tolerate the man. He was overthrown in a military coup in 2006. […]

Despite the recent ferment in Thai society, there is cause for optimism in the long run. The Red Shirts will continue to outnumber the Yellow Shirts for a long time because the latter group draws from a shrinking constituency. The younger generation already holds a less reverent view of the royal family. Furthermore, even though King Bhumibol Adulyadej is a well-respected figure, much of the prestige and magic associated with him will go when he passes on.

I hope he’s right about the last part, but there is really no way to know for sure. Public discourse in Thailand has always been monitored and controlled, but never as much as in the last few years. With the draconian lèse-majesté law and its extremely wide interpretation, it is difficult to estimate the number of Thais who are disillusioned with the monarchy, since we can never speak our minds (except anonymously).

But we do exist. We are out there. And if Thailand is to overcome its various long-term challenges and be a fair society where people can truly call home, we must have a democratic leadership that listens to everyone’s voice — including republican ones. The royalists have dominated the political and social conversations for far too long. Through the lèse-majesté law and good old witch hunts, they have abused their dominant position to silence others by invoking King Bhumibol’s moral authority.

But this travesty cannot continue forever. Eventually, when society’s problems pile up enough, Thailand will need to have an honest, upfront discussion about the overarching role of the monarchy, and to clean up our mainstream history which has long been bastardised to support the Bangkok ruling class’ anti-democratic narrative.

At this point, Thailand is a deeply divided society, making reconciliation almost unfathomably complicated. The only way for the country to solve its political conflict and heal its divisions is for all of its people to talk, openly and without fear.

If this does not happen, then all hope is lost for the Land of Smile.

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